HL Deb 06 July 1998 vol 591 cc959-78

3.6 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Dubs.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Sentence Review Commissioners]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 7, leave out (", and one of them shall he appointed chairman").

The noble Lord said: We are here today to consider amendments that have been put down to the Bill that is before your Lordships' Committee. I welcome the interest in the Bill that has been taken so far by noble Lords. It is part of our function to scrutinise and improve legislation. But noble Lords will be aware that it is the Government's position that the Bill must remain consistent with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. For that reason I cannot support many of the amendments that have been put down by noble Lords. However, there are one or two amendments which I will be able to accept on the grounds that they improve the overall terms of the Bill while remaining faithful to the agreement.

I shall take government Amendments Nos. 1, 45, 46 and 48 together, as they all relate to the same purpose. Government Amendment No. 1 removes that part of Clause 1(1) which requires that one of the commissioners appointed under the Bill by the Secretary of State is made chairman. But it is clearly not the Government's intention to remove entirely from the Bill the requirement to appoint a chairman.

Government Amendment No. 45, which relates to Schedule 1—the schedule that deals with the appointment of the commissioners—requires the Secretary of State to appoint a chairman or joint chairman. The effect of government Amendment No. 46 is that, if joint chairmen are appointed, they shall be jointly responsible for the preparation of the annual report. Government Amendment No. 48 amends Schedule 2, which deals with the Secretary of State's power to make rules regarding the procedures to be followed by commissioners in exercising their functions. In particular, this would allow the Secretary of State to make rules regarding the allocation of functions under joint chairmen. nder the terms of the amendment, functions may be exercised jointly or concurrently.

I should explain why the Government believe it might be desirable to appoint joint chairmen for the sentence review body. Under the terms of the Bill, In making appointments the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of the Commissioners, as a group, commanding widespread acceptance throughout the community in Northern Ireland". That is set out in Clause 1(3).

It is a challenging requirement. Many Members of the Committee will be fully aware of the contentious nature of appointments within Northern Ireland. The appointment of an individual may be welcomed by one group but condemned by another. The significance of the position of chairman of the sentence review commissioners cannot be underestimated. By allowing my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to appoint joint chairmen, it may be easier for her to meet the test in Clause 1(3). I beg to move.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

We also support the agreement. I recognise that that sometimes can give rise to difficulty both for the Government and ourselves in looking at some of the amendments on the Marshalled List and some of those which it might be desirable, in other circumstances, to move or include in the Bill. The agreement is not perfect from everyone's point of view. We would not regard it as the perfect agreement, but it was the agreement that could be reached. That is extremely important in the context of this Bill. Frankly, if the agreement had not been reached, this Bill would not be acceptable at all. It is only acceptable within the terms of the agreement. I am sure that later we shall return to whether certain points are within both the letter of the agreement, which is easier to establish, and within its spirit, which is much more difficult to establish.

As regards Amendments Nos. 1, 45. 46 and 48, I entirely understand the reasons why the Government have now decided that it might be easier to appoint joint chairmen than a single chairman. I see no provision for that in the agreement or in the paper on the release of prisoners which was submitted to the talks. I am not quite sure of the status of that paper. It is clearly not part of the agreement, but it was before the participants to the talks who reached the agreement. Therefore, it seems to represent, in part at least, the spirit of the agreement for these purposes.

In talking about the chairmen and the members of the commission, the Government agreed in Committee in another place that the statutory lawyer on the commission—I use that term deliberately because the statute provides for a lawyer to be on the commission—should be a United Kingdom lawyer and not a foreign one. But the Government resisted attempts to ensure that a qualified lawyer should be the chairman of the sentence review body.

I am slightly surprised that the judges in this House have not been keener to see at least a qualified lawyer appointed to head this particular body because it has to make decisions on sentencing. In other contexts the judges often seem keen to emphasise their responsibility and experience, which I acknowledge. That amendment is not before us at the moment. I can see the wisdom in providing for the possibility of joint chairmen. Therefore, I am happy to support this particular amendment.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

This afternoon we shall be considering two sorts of amendments: those designed to clarify the Bill and those designed to improve on the Good Friday Agreement. From these Benches we shall be very resistant to the second sort of amendment. The amendments before us at the moment do not fall into that category. They clarify and they are helpful. We shall support them.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I ask for clarification. I wholly accept that one is bound by the scope and ambit of the agreement. If a question arises as to whether an amendment falls within the spirit or letter of the agreement, is a copy of the agreement available in the Library?

Lord Dubs

Yes. There is bound to be a copy in the Library. Indeed, copies were available in the Printed Paper Office. If any Member of the Committee needs to get one quickly, it is possible that I may be able to get one or two copies on demand.

Lord Tebbit

I apologise, but I had to leave the Chamber for a moment or two during the Minister's speech. Can he clear up one thing about which I have doubts? Who will appoint the chairman?

Lord Dubs

The Secretary of State will appoint the chairman.

Lord Tebbit

The amendment merely removes the words, and one of them shall be appointed chairman". Am I misreading what is provided in the amendment?

Lord Dubs

Clause 1(1) states, The Secretary of State shall appoint Sentence Review Commissioners, and one of them shall be appointed chairman". That will be by the Secretary of State. That is certainly my understanding of the Bill.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I thought that, with Amendment No. 1, we were also discussing Amendment No. 45. That amendment states: The Secretary of State shall appoint a chairman, or joint chairmen, from among the Commissioners". That is to be inserted into the Bill if the Committee agrees.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Tebbit moved Amendment No. 2.

Page 1, line 11, at end insert ("and (c) at least one is representative of the victims of terrorist crime associated with Northern Ireland.").

The noble Lord said: In the debate that we had on this Bill last week, we heard very little about the victims. I accept of course that that is part of the price which the Government are prepared to pay in their hopes to appease republican opinion. But it seems to me that it would only be appropriate if, among the commissioners who are going to consider the early release of prisoners and the manner in which organisations have given up violence and come into the democratic fold, there was at least one person who will look at all the issues from the point of view of the victims of terrorist crimes associated with Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I am very happy to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. It is an extremely important one if we are to achieve balance in that regard. I see no good reason why this amendment should be unacceptable to anyone. I am quite sure that Her Majesty's Government, having insisted that the victims of terrorism must not be forgotten—and we are grateful for those assurances both by the Minister and the Secretary of State herself—will fully support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit.

Nor need there be any great difficulty in finding suitable nominees for the post. Members of the Committee will know that the former much-respected head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, produced a splendid report on the need for the victims of terrorist crimes to be kept in the forefront of all our minds and deliberations. Thus far a sense of balance has been conspicuous by its absence. The noble Lord has said that it is understandable that terrorists have to be placated in order to ensure that the mis-named "peace process" is kept on the rails. For that reason what were called "confidence-building concessions" were, until now, directed towards terrorists and their fellow travellers.

The amendment makes a modest start in redressing the balance. Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and his team will have no difficulty in providing representatives—if there is to be more than one—of the forgotten men, women and children who had the misfortune to get in the way of the bullets, sometimes because they were determined to live normal lives and in other cases because they persisted in serving the entire Northern Ireland community, of all faiths and of none.

Now is the time for an element of justice to be done. Including a representative of the victims would go a long way towards achieving the aim set out in subsection (3), to which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred earlier, and would command widespread acceptance throughout the community. In my view, the amendment would do just that.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

In supporting this amendment, perhaps I may first urge the Government to have very special regard to this paragraph from the Rowe Report on the operation of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act: I agree that there is a reduced amount of terrorist activity, and of course there are ceasefires and a 10th April Agreement and a 'Yes' vote in the Referendum of 22nd May. But I have heard and seen real evidence of intimidation, exerted by paramilitaries, and the fear caused by it. And I refer to Chapter 3 above where I survey the facts about the present terrorist situation, and in my view those facts demonstrate what is the influence, still, of the paramilitaries. Furthermore, where a jury was empanelled to try a case which had paramilitary connections, jurors reported incidents in which they were obviously intimidated, and they were made apprehensive, and the trial was therefore aborted; and there were several attempts to complete the trial, but each failed, and for the same reason. To my mind the case is a clear illustration that juries cannot yet be asked to try cases where there is a paramilitary connection". It seems to me that that is very relevant to our discussion here because it demonstrates clearly that even now there are victims—victims of severe and continuing intimidation. Someone must speak for them on the commission. I should have preferred that someone to be drawn from either Families Against Intimidation and Terror (FAIT) or from the RUC.

My second point relates to the amendment to Clause 3. I think that we need some information on the contents of the Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Bill which is now being considered in Dublin. Would it be possible for the Minister to make such information available for Report stage? It would be extremely unfortunate if the drafting and the application of the Bill in the South could be used by paramilitaries in the North to exert pressure on Her Majesty's Government to be, as it will be said, as generous and as ready to take risks for peace as Dublin is. I submit that the threats to peace are not the same in both parts of Ireland.

Lord Monson

I, too, support the amendment for the reasons powerfully spelt out from various quarters of the Committee. As my noble friend Lord Molyneaux said, it is difficult to see how anyone could possibly oppose it.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

When the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, spoke, he said, perhaps inadvertently, that there was no discussion of victims at Second Reading. He may not recall it, but from these Benches I made a point of speaking about victims and referred to Clause 14—

Lord Tebbit

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I said, or at least I intended to say—perhaps I did not say it or perhaps the noble Lord missed it—that there had been no discussion of victims in the Minister's speech advocating the Bill. If the noble Lord reads the speech, I think that he will find that there is precious little about victims in it.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

I spoke about victims at some length. I shall not waste the Committee's time by pursuing the point, but I did so particularly in the context of Clause 14 which deals with the notification of victims and which was inserted into the Bill not least because of pressure from the Alliance Party.

I agree entirely with the sentiment of this amendment. However, as worded, I believe that it presents considerable difficulties for any Secretary of State in identifying a representative from the wide variety of victims of terrorist crime. There are so many sorts of victims with so many different frames of mind. I should very much like to see on the commission someone who has been affected directly or indirectly by terrorist crime. The suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, is very interesting. She said that an organisation such as Families Against Intimidation and Terror might be involved. There are considerable problems in nominating one person who is representative of that whole wide body of horrible experience. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister how the Government propose to handle this thought, which is a very good one.

Viscount Brookeborough

I support the amendment primarily because of the victims and their relatives. Secondly, I believe that all too often the Northern Ireland Office loses sight of the fact that it requires support from the population of Northern Ireland generally. A vast number of the people of Northern Ireland, going far beyond the families of the victims, would see acceptance of this amendment as an extremely sympathetic move in relation to the victims and their feelings. The Government are at present coming under quite a lot of fire for not having a truly representative Parades Commission. The same is said of various other organisations. It would help their case, perhaps more than any other, if they were to include on the commission a representative of the victims from within Northern Ireland.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I hope that the Government will accept the amendment. My noble friend Lord Dubs indicated earlier that he would accept some amendments; I hope that this will be one. As far as I can see, there can be no objection at all to the amendment. Indeed, there is very much to be said in its favour. As I understand it, one of the great problems in Northern Ireland with regard to this Bill is the outrage that so many victims and their families feel because although their loved ones are no longer here—or, if they are here, they are in dire circumstances and they cannot be released from the effects of the bombings—the perpetrators of the crimes who have not paid the full price of those crimes are set to be released from prison prematurely. Frankly, I can understand why they feel that way. I would feel exactly the same myself.

If a representative of the victims were to serve on the commission—in any event I disagree with the establishment of the commission—they would at least have some assurance that their points of view would be put forward and, posthumously, the points of view of those who have been destroyed by the vicious activities of the terrorist organisations. I hope that my noble friend will accept the amendment.

Baroness O'Cathain

I make a sincere plea to the Government that they accept the amendment. I support the amendment because I believe that it would raise the credibility of the deliberations of the sentence review commissioners and because I believe that it would help the healing process which is so important in the context of making the overall peace process work. I recognise the problems of choosing one person to represent the victims, but I do not believe that the late Gordon Wilson was unique in his humanity, forgiveness, wisdom and breadth of vision.

Lord Kilbracken

Can the Minister give any indication of how many commissioners there will be and whether their decisions will have to be unanimous or based on a majority of their opinions?

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I support the amendment. I cannot find anything against it in the agreement. Obviously, as has been said, it is a healing and a humanitarian measure. I respectfully suggest that it would only help the implementation of the agreement which will be difficult in any circumstances.

Lord Dunleath

I, too, from Northern Ireland support the amendment proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Tebbit and Lord Molyneaux. To support what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has just said, I have with me a copy of the agreement which, in Strand 3, under the heading "Reconciliation and Victims of Violence" states in paragraph 12: It is recognised that victims have a right to remember as well as to contribute to a changed society". I believe that as a commissioner a victim would make an enormous contribution.

Finally, as to where a representative of victims is to be found, I suggest that Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and the Northern Ireland Victims' Commission is an ideal place to start.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I too support this amendment. All noble Lords had victims very much in mind during Second Reading. Many of the speeches reflected that. We have had them particularly in mind since the publication of the excellent report by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. In one sense everyone in Northern Ireland is a victim. The whole Province has been the victim of terrorism for a long period, but there are some who are victims because of what has happened to them or to those close to them. Obviously, that is what one has in mind in considering this amendment.

I hope that at all times the commissioners, in making their decisions, will act with the victims in mind, both victims in general and the victims in each particular case that they consider. The crimes that the commissioners consider will be a guide as to whether or not those who committed them are likely to revert to terrorism. In paragraph 3 of the agreement the section on prisoners states that account will be taken of the seriousness of the offences for which the person was convicted. That is in the agreement. The agreement takes account of the crimes committed and hence the victims of those crimes committed by the prisoners in question.

I hope that the Government will agree to this amendment. If the Minister is unable to agree to it straight away, perhaps he will think about it most carefully between now and Report stage.

Lord Dubs

I have listened carefully to the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and other noble Lords. The Committee is right to draw attention to the importance of giving consideration to those who have been the victims of terrorist crime.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that I do not agree for one moment that the Bill is intended to appease republican opinion. The Bill is intended to give effect to an agreement which was supported by political parties across the spectrum in Northern Ireland, not just republicans. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, also suggested that the Government had not said enough about their concerns for and their wish to do more for victims. I do not believe that that is an accurate reflection of either my position or that of the Government. I remind the Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, very helpfully pointed out, that in November 1997 my right honourable friend the Secretary of State appointed Sir Kenneth Bloomfield to report on, the feasibility of providing greater recognition for those who have become victims in the last 30 years as a consequence of events in Northern Ireland". The report We Will Remember Them was published in May 1998. It will be the focus of future government help for victims and their loved ones, and will inform the allocation of the £5 million promised by the Prime Minister to support victims and their families.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has appointed the Minister of State, Adam Ingram, as Minister for Victims and has also established a victims liaison unit within the Northern Ireland Office to develop policy and implement the recommendations of Sir Kenneth's report. Last Tuesday my honourable friend the Minister of State announced the first package of measures, which included £700,000 to establish a new trauma centre for young people and their families who have been affected by the troubles, and a £200,000 fund to be established immediately for community groups and voluntary organisations to take forward recommendations in the Bloomfield Report. A major consultation exercise will inform further action. These are positive measures and the Government are committed to building on them to meet the needs of victims.

I turn to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. The effect of this amendment is to require the Secretary of State to appoint as a commissioner someone who, is representative of the victims of terrorist crime associated with Northern Ireland". Although many victims and their relatives will be concerned about the release of prisoners under this measure and the Bill gives recognition to that concern through the provisions for victim notification, that does not mean that victims or their representatives should be given a direct role in deciding who should be released. The Bill does not require that victims' views should be taken into account by the commissioners in deciding whether a prisoner should receive a declaration. In that respect I note that the noble Lord who spoke to the amendment did not say that it should impose such a requirement. The commissioners are required to apply the conditions referred to in Clause 3 and no others. As such, there is no specialist expertise that a victims' representative would bring to the process. This is not to say that the Secretary of State could not or should not appoint to the body someone who might be considered to be representative of victims; only that there is no reason to make it a requirement under the legislation. I believe that that is the nub of the argument.

I deal with two or three specific points. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, requested that a Bill that had recently been published in Dublin should be made available. I shall do my best to see what can be done in time for Report stage. Under this Bill the number of commissioners will be 10. For their normal work they will be arranged in panels of three, but decisions by commissioners will be made by a majority.

I am aware of the sensitivity of any issue to do with victims. Many people in Northern Ireland are victims and have suffered enormously over the past 25 years. But it is my view that many victim groups do not necessarily want a specific role in deciding on releases under the Bill. They are probably far more concerned that their own needs should be addressed. The Government have already gone some way in endeavouring to do that. Some victims do support the agreement; perhaps others do not. There is no unanimity of view among victims. There is nothing between us except whether this should be the subject of a specific requirement in legislation. I am prepared to consider further what the Committee has said in the course of this debate without making any commitment.

Lord Tebbit

I am grateful to the Minister for his last wise words. He could very easily say that, whatever the Bill might say, it would be the intention of the Secretary of State to appoint such a person. I am sure that then we could all rest entirely happy. The Minister underlined much of what was said by all those who supported the amendment when he observed that there was no requirement to consider victims under the Bill. Precisely so. That was why I thought it appropriate to amend the Bill in this way.

I am surprised that the Minister denies that the Bill seeks to appease republican opinion. We do not want to cover old ground today. However, I remind the Minister that the referendum upon which he leans so heavily took place when the IRA was fully armed and the people of Northern Ireland were told that if they did not vote "Yes" there was little doubt that the IRA would again use its arms. I have my worries about that.

I remind the noble Lord that when I asked him whether Her Majesty's Government accepted any obligation to ensure impartiality in the conduct of the Northern Ireland referendum he observed: I can comment only on the position of the Government … We wanted to see, and were pleased that there was, a yes vote, but we took the position throughout the campaign that how people chose to vote on 22nd May was entirely a matter for them".—[Official Report, 5/6/98; col. WA 57.] We would be naive wholly to believe that, especially when the noble Lord also confirmed that the Secretary of State had granted temporary release to four prisoners to attend the Sinn Fein conference and acknowledged that that was a matter of concern and hurt to many members of the public.

The Minister informed me that the Secretary of State had said that such releases would not be granted for such purposes in the future. So it was all right to say that the Government were impartial; and all right for them to release people from prison to campaign for a yes vote. But no one was released from prison to campaign for a no vote, or, indeed, no help was given to those campaigning for a no vote. Nor do I think that talk of £5 million in that context as washing away the Government's responsibilities towards victims is adequate. The victims are not to be bought with £5 million. The Minister may shake his head, but many people would be extremely hurt that in a discussion of whether one of the commissioners should be representative of the victims, the Minister should introduce the question of £5 million that was going to be paid out to help them in some way or another.

I should find the suggestion that there are so many victims that it would be difficult to find anyone to represent them laughable, if it were not tragic. I take some encouragement from what the Minister said at the end of his speech. Therefore I am content to withdraw the amendment so that we can return to it on Report when the Minister might have something more positive to say about the Government's intentions, even if nothing more positive to say about the possibility of putting that into legislation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Applications]:

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 2, line 2, leave out from ("for") to ("life") in line 5.

The noble Lord said: For the convenience of the Committee I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 20 and 27. Clause 3 is an important clause. It deals with the eligibility for release of individual prisoners, and sets out the criteria involved. The criteria include four conditions, three of which apply to fixed sentenced prisoners and a fourth condition which applies, with the other three, to life sentence prisoners alone. It is the fourth condition which is the subject of the amendments.

The fourth condition is that if the prisoner were released immediately he would not be a danger to the public. As I say, that applies to life sentence prisoners only. Even if it were the opinion of the commissioners that a prisoner serving a fixed term would be a danger to the public he would, nevertheless, be released if the other conditions were fulfilled. I find that an extraordinary proposition. I found it odd that a similar amendment was not accepted when it was moved in another place.

In the debate in another place, the Minister of State advanced as a reason for not accepting the amendment that prisoners on fixed sentences were, in the normal course of things, released at the end of the term of their sentence, whatever that may be, which had been fixed by the judge with the appropriate rules for remission and so on. They are released at the end of the term of their sentence whether or not they were regarded as a risk. No judgment is made at the end of the fixed sentence as to whether there is a risk. He therefore regarded that amendment as a significant new concept in the criminal justice system of Northern Ireland. The Minister said rather the same in response to that point being made briefly in this place on Second Reading.

However, the whole Bill is a significant new concept in the criminal justice system of Northern Ireland. In any case, there is to be an assessment of risk for those serving fixed term as well as for those serving life under the third condition: if the prisoner were released immediately, he would not be likely to become a supporter of a terrorist organisation, or to become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland". That is to say, that even for lifers the risk of committing terrorist offences is to be assessed and is to form part of the decision leading up to or—not, as the case may be—the release of the individual prisoner.

In that sense, the principle of the amendment is conceded so far as concerns terrorist crimes. All the amendment does is extend that principle to crimes that are not regarded as terrorist crimes under the Bill. If a fixed sentence prisoner was thought likely to return to violent crime, but not a terrorist crime, he would still be released early. There would, as I see it in the Bill as it stands, be no legal way to stop that. That is not desirable. It is not that novel a principle, given the context of the Bill as a whole.

We may be told that all that has been drafted in the Bill was set out in the paper Prisoners and the Political Settlement. I referred briefly in some earlier remarks to that paper, which was placed in the Library of the House by the Minister at the time of the agreement. But I am not clear as to what is the exact position of that paper. I take it to be an expression of the Government's view on how they would implement the agreement, which was made available to those negotiating the agreement, and hence it can be thought of in some sense as an embodiment, at least so far as concerns prisoners, of the spirit of the agreement. It is not of course part of the agreement itself.

The agreement itself is clearer on that point. In paragraph 3 on page 25 in the section on prisoners it says that account will be taken of the seriousness of the offences of which the person was convicted and the need to protect the community. It seems to me therefore that it is well within the terms of the agreement itself that the community should be protected from a fixed sentence prisoner who otherwise might be thought liable to go back to violent crime of some kind on his release.

It seems to me that in that respect the Government have not implemented in the Bill the full terms of the agreement, or the section on prisoners. This gives me the opportunity to make it clear once again that we on this side accept the whole of the agreement—the words of the agreement and its spirit. Nothing that I have said before, and nothing that I intend to say, should be outside the terms of the written agreement—if I can manage it, as I read it, at any rate—and I hope that nothing will be outside the spirit of the agreement. Judging by the Minister's remarks on Second Reading, and his colleague's remarks in another place, in this case the amendment is nearer to the words of the agreement than the Bill itself. I beg to move.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)

I must point out to the Committee that if Amendment No. 3 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 4.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

It seems to be a totally reasonable amendment, from reading the agreement. What has happened? Why have the Government moved away from the simple concepts in paragraph 3 on prisoners and embarked upon this complicated exercise? There must be some reason for it. Before making up my mind, I should like to know what the reason was and why the agreement, as it stands, is not good enough.

The Earl of Longford

I had hoped that the Minister would speak earlier. My attitude to this and other amendments will depend on what my noble friend, with the authority of his office and expert knowledge, tells us. As I have said previously, this agreement is the best thing that has happened to Northern Ireland in my lifetime. I have the utmost confidence in all those concerned. I would not put my judgment as regards what is within or outside the agreement against theirs.

I shall wait to hear what the Minister says. If my noble friend says that the provision is outside the agreement, I am against it.

Lord Dubs

Amendments that would have the same effect as these were put down and debated in another place. At that time the Government gave reasons why those amendments would not be accepted.

As was explained in another place, there are good reasons for drawing a distinction between determinate sentences and life sentences. A life sentence is imposed automatically as the mandatory sentence for murder. It may also be imposed at the discretion of the court for other very serious offences. In these discretionary cases, the life sentence is likely to have been imposed precisely because the court considered that the risk of further serious offences being committed was an issue. It is therefore entirely proper that in such cases the commissioners should take account of any risk of danger to the public.

However, the same principles and rules do not apply to fixed term prisoners. Under the law in Northern Ireland such prisoners are released automatically after they have served the required portion of their sentence. The release of fixed term prisoners is not dependent on a favourable assessment of risk.

I can understand that because of the new release arrangements introduced by this Bill many would consider that additional protections are required before release may be considered. But I believe that the other criteria which determinate sentence prisoners must satisfy are extremely robust and are appropriate for prisoners who have not been given life sentences by the courts.

It also remains the case that a fixed term prisoner may not be released if the commissioners consider that he is likely to become concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland. This means that every applicant must be assessed to determine whether he would be likely to re-engage in terrorism or acts related to it.

I shall now deal with the amendment that would extend the licence conditions for fixed term prisoners to include risk. With the exception of some sex offenders, prisoners serving fixed sentences for non-terrorist offences who are released in Northern Ireland are not subject to any licence conditions. If they commit further offences they are simply dealt with in the normal way and sentenced for the further offence. For cases that fall under the Treatment of Offenders Order 1976 a prisoner may be subject to a further penalty in respect of an offence committed after discharge from prison.

Under this Bill, which is primarily to do with terrorism and terrorists, a fixed term prisoner will be subject to licence conditions which allow his recall and return to prison if he becomes or is likely to become re-involved in acts of terrorism after release. This addresses the key concern regarding those released under this Bill that they should not be allowed to remain at large if they are likely to be involved in further acts of terrorism. As such, the Bill makes provision for the risk of involvement in further acts of terrorism.

In addition, to include such a condition goes beyond the terms of the paper placed in the Library by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on 20th April to which some noble Lords referred. That paper made clear that life sentence prisoners would be subject to a risk criteria and by implication suggested that other prisoners would not. Although that paper is not part of the agreement, it was made available to the parties in the course of the discussions that led to the agreement as an explanation of what the Government would be prepared to do to implement those parts of the agreement relating to prisoners. As such the Government consider that they should not depart from the terms of that paper at this time and that to do so would undermine confidence in the Government's commitment to making all parts of the agreement a reality, as was helpfully said by my noble friend Lord Longford.

Also, to include such a provision could give difficulty with the coherence of the Bill. As fixed term prisoners do not have to pass a risk test to be released, to impose such a condition as part of the licence could lead to the sort of problem outlined in another place by my honourable friend the Minister of State. He explained: A prisoner could have his licence suspended by the Secretary of State and revoked by the commissioners on the grounds that he was, or was likely to become, a danger to the public. The prisoner could then apply to the commissioners for a declaration under clause 3. They would have to consider the prisoner for release against the conditions set out in clause 3 and, if those were met, make a further declaration in his favour … a state of affairs in which a prisoner could be recalled to prison for breaching his licence conditions but released again because he meets the criteria in clause 3 would be unsatisfactory, in particular as the prisoner in question would not have committed a further criminal offence".—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/98; col. 1440.] I hope that I have explained the reasons for the Government's position. I hope, therefore, that the amendment will not be pressed further.

Lord Monson

If a prisoner is sentenced to a fixed term of 25 years in prison for a serious terrorist offence—we can all think of a recent case—and is released in consequence of the Bill after two years instead of 16 years and eight months, as would normally be the case, is there not a serious danger that he might reoffend?

Lord Dubs

First, I do not wish to comment on particular cases. However, if someone has been given a 25 year sentence, the court has presumably taken a view as to the likelihood of reoffending; and that view influenced the court into giving a fixed term decision rather than a life sentence. It is on that basis that the distinction in the Bill continues. If the court had believed that there was a grave risk of that individual reoffending, the court would surely have imposed a life sentence.

Lord Tebbit

I hope that we shall all remember to keep our copies of the Official Report of the debate because I think that the Minister's words may come back to haunt him.

I have to remind the noble Lord that the people it is proposed to let out of prison are not all first time offenders. A number of them have served sentences and have been suitably released, under the provisions of the Northern Irish jurisdiction, and the different and easier rules from those on the mainland which have been in place there for some time, and have been rearrested and reconvicted for committing new terrorist acts. So the Minister must be extraordinarily confident that as a result of this agreement there will be a change of heart on the part of men who have had no change of heart previously and have not been reformed in any way by their time in prison. Indeed, the latter is hardly surprising since most of their time in prison will have been spent in receiving instruction in the ways of terrorism from their camp commanders, as they refer to them.

The Earl of Longford

Is the noble Lord telling us that the amendment is or is not consistent with the agreement?

Lord Tebbit

I am not entering into that discussion at this moment. There are those who will maintain that it is; and those who will maintain that it is not.

I am saying that the Minister must be extremely confident of himself. I should also like to tempt him briefly. Of course he cannot see ahead as to how the review board will operate and what conclusions it will reach. But does the noble Lord believe that those who signed up to the agreement expect that most, some, all, or nearly all of the members of their terrorist group will get out? It will be intriguing to know. Will these commissioners, review board members—whatever we call them—rubber stamp? Or can we expect that in many cases they will consider a man's record and say, "No, this man is too dangerous to let out, whatever expectations were aroused by the agreement"?

Lord Cope of Berkeley

The Minister responded earlier with words that had probably been prepared before he heard the debate. He did not address the points which I and others made. Part of the argument was whether the amendment is consistent with the agreement. The Minister did not argue that it was consistent with the agreement; he said that it was consistent with the paper that was issued and placed in the Library, rather than the agreement.

My noble friend and I drew attention to the fact that the agreement specifically said that the review process would provide for the need to protect the community. In each case it appears that it should do so. I cannot see where the Bill does that in respect of fixed-sentence prisoners.

The Minister also spoke of the coherence of the Bill being damaged by these amendments. I do not agree. He said that there was a no-risk test for those serving determinate sentences. As I pointed out in my earlier remarks, there is a risk test as regards terrorist crimes. That is the third condition which the commissioners must address. There is a risk test as far as terrorist crimes are concerned. The Minister referred to it. It is true that in the Bill as it stands there is not a risk test in relation to crimes other than terrorist crimes. The point of the amendment is to insert such a risk test.

Is the Minister prepared to say that determinate sentence prisoners should be released earlier than the trial judge thought was the right sentence for their crimes, even if they would be a danger to the public?

4 p.m.

Lord Dubs

I can only repeat what I said. For those prisoners released under the terms of the Bill, a condition of the licence will be that they do not re-engage in, or are not likely to re-engage in, the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. The licence conditions are surely one of the key safeguards that the noble Lord sought to establish.

We do not need the additional safeguard as regards the risk element to which he referred as the basis for his amendments. There are sufficient safeguards. Of course no one can predict what will happen in the case of every single prisoner released. I repeat to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, the figures I gave the House on Second Reading in relation to the number of prisoners that had been released. I speak from memory, but of the several hundred prisoners released in recent years, only two have been reconvicted of terrorist offences. That does not prove that that will be the case in the future, but it indicates that the process has not resulted in prisoners reoffending and that the conditions of the licence would seem to be a safeguard.

The argument that was advanced in the other place and which I advanced both at Second Reading and today is not one that I will live to regret.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

Perhaps the reason that prisoners who have reoffended have not been caught is because extradition is not working. On Second Reading the Minister said that those of us who considered that to be a possibility were cynical. I have looked at the figures. In the past 20 years, 67 prisoners have been sought for terrorist offences; 20 have been arrested in the south but only six extradited. It may well be that the Minister's figures are confused by these facts.

Lord Dubs

I do not have any figures on extradition. I take the noble Baroness's figures as being accurate. I am not sure what that has to do with prisoners being released under licence—unless the noble Baroness is assuming that every prisoner released under this Bill will then move into the republic. I do not follow her argument.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

I am sorry, I am confusing the Minister. My point is that these prisoners have not been caught and we do not know whether they are reoffending.

Lord Dubs

That is right. We cannot know in all instances. We can know only of those who have been convicted since release, not those who have not. It may be that some have left Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that many prisoners have been released over recent years, both under his government and in the past year. I was not aware that the particular concerns he has expressed today were ones that he has applied to the programme of releases over the years. If that is so, his comments escaped me. The Bill lays down provisions for an accelerated release programme, but it is essentially a continuation of the policies that have been followed by both Governments for some years.

Lord Desai

I am not a lawyer but the amendment argues, not whether people who are released will reoffend—none of us can predict anything about that—but that we should not make a distinction between those with a life sentence and those with a fixed-term sentence. I have heard no argument that we should not make a distinction. Normally when judges impose a life sentence they take very seriously the distinction between a life sentence and a fixed-term sentence. On what ground is the noble Lord arguing that we should eliminate the distinction? Is it that everybody is very dangerous, whether a life-termer or a fixed-termer? The argument has always been that a life-termer is a different case. I would have expected the noble Lord to have made a big thing about having life imprisonment as a separate and a hard category. Now we are told that we have to obliterate that distinction. Either way, the possibility of reoffending is not at issue—that is not predictable by us or anybody else—but the distinction between life and fixed term is still worth making.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

The noble Lord, Lord Desai, says that the prediction as to whether or not people reoffend cannot be made, but that is what risk assessment is. The commissioners are obliged to make that judgment—difficult though it is—in respect of both types of prisoner with regard to terrorist crime. They are also obliged to make that judgment with regard to lifers and to all crime.

As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, now that, under the Bill, we are proposing to release people earlier than the judge thought was necessary for their crimes, regard should also be had as to whether they will be a danger to the public, as stated in the agreement.

The Minister relied on the licence conditions. That is what Amendment No. 27 goes to. It makes the same point in respect of the licence conditions as Amendment No. 3 makes in respect of the main release condition. It also makes the distinction between fixed-sentence prisoners and the life prisoner. The case is slightly different in relation to licence conditions, but it does not make it any better that a determinate sentence prisoner should be released when he is regarded as a danger to the public for ordinary crime. He is being released on licence only provided that he does not commit terrorist crime. It seems to me that that fourth condition should apply to both types of prisoner. But the Minister seems determined to try to stick to the opinion expressed by his right honourable friend in another place and, indeed, by himself. In that case, I must press the amendment.

Lord Tebbit

Before we reach that stage, I believe that the Minister could clear up this matter quite quickly if he really wanted to. Is he saying that regardless of what it says in the Bill, the board's review members will never release anyone who is a danger to the public, or is he saying just that they will not consider, before releasing a fixed-term prisoner, whether he will be a danger to the public? That is an interesting distinction.

Lord Dubs

I do not see that the members of the board can do more than act on what they consider to be the case.

Lord Tebbit

With respect to the Minister, that is not quite the question. As my noble friend Lord Cope said, the fourth condition that the prisoner would not be a danger to the public is attached only to lifers. Does that give an instruction to those who are considering the release of fixed-term prisoners that they should not take into account whether or not the individual who is the subject of their consideration would be a danger to the public? Indeed, is he saying that even if they were of the view that he would be a danger to the public they should still release him because they have no powers on that ground to keep him in gaol if he is a fixed termer? If he were a lifer, of course, they could.

Lord Dubs

I am not sure that I can add very much to what I said earlier. After all—and I am repeating myself—the commissioners will note what sentence was imposed by the court and will reflect upon the fact that the court had a good reason for drawing a distinction between a determinate and indeterminate sentence. It is on that basis that the Bill has been constructed.

Lord Tebbit

The judge would have had a good reason for sentencing a man to 25 years imprisonment. This Bill provides that he must be released after as little as two years.

Lord Dubs

I am not sure that we shall achieve anything more from this dialogue. The Bill refers to people being released at the end of a two-year period and although there are certain safeguards and conditions, that would apply to both life sentence prisoners and determinate sentence prisoners.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I wish to press this matter to a Division.

4.12 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 3) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 79; Not-Contents, 171.

Division No. 1
Ailsa, M. Harmsworth, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Higgins, L.
Arran, E. Holderness, L.
Ashbourne, L. Ilchester, E.
Astor of Hever, L. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Knight of Collingtree, B.
Beloff, L. Leigh, L.
Biffen, L. Lowry, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Braine of Wheatley, L. McConnell, L.
Brightman, L. Mackay of Drumadoon, L.
Brookeborough, V. Mackintosh of Halifax, V.
Bruntisfield, L. Marlesford, L.
Buckinghamshire, E. Marsh, L.
Byford, B. [Teller.] Mersey, V.
Carew, L. Milverton, L.
Charteris of Amisfield, L. Molyneaux of Killead, L.
Chesham, L. Monro of Langholm, L.
Clanwilliam, E. Monson, L.
Cope of Berkeley, L. Moran, L.
Courtown, E. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Craig of Radley, L. Moyne, L.
Davidson, V. Naseby, L.
Denton of Wakefield, B. Norrie, L.
Dunleath, L. Northesk, E.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Oliver of Aylmerton, L.
Erne, E. Orr-Ewing, L.
Foley, L. Palmer, L.
Fookes, B. Pender, L.
Gainsborough, E. Perry of Southwark, B.
Gray of Contin, L. Rathcavan, L.
Renwick, L. Tebbit, L.
Rowallan, L. Thomas of Swynnerton, L.
Seccombe, B. [Teller.] Trumpington, B.
Sharples, B. Vivian, L.
Weatherill, L.
Skelmersdale, L Wedgwood, L.
Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L. Wilcox, B.
Strafford, E. Wise, L.
Strathcarron, L. Wynford, L.
Acton, L. Hattersley, L.
Addington, L. Hayman, B.
Alderdice, L. Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Amos, B. Hogg of Cumbernauld, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Hollis of Heigham, B.
Attenborough, L. Holme of Cheltenham, L.
Avebury, L. Hooson, L.
Barnett, L. Howie of Troon, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Hoyle, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Hughes of Woodside, L.
Berkeley, L. Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Blackstone, B. Hutchinson of Lullington, L.
Borrie, L. Irvine of Lairg, L. [Lord Chancellor.]
Brooks of Tremorfa, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Islwyn, L.
Burlison, L. Janner of Braunstone, L.
Calverley, L. Jay of Paddington, B.
Carlisle, E. Jeger, B.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.] Kilbracken, L.
Castle of Blackburn, B. Kirkhill, L.
Chandos, V. Kirkwood, L.
Chorley, L. Lester of Herne Hill, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Levy, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Linklater of Butterstone, B.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Lockwood, B.
Currie of Marylebone, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Dahrendorf, L. Longford, E.
David, B. McCarthy, L.
Davies of Coity, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller.]
Dean of Beswick, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Desai, L. McNair, L.
Dholakia, L. McNally, L.
Diamond, L. Maddock, B.
Dixon, L. Mallalieu, B.
Donoughue, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Dormand of Easington, L. Masham of Ilton, B.
Dubs, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Elis-Thomas, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Evans of Parkside, L. Meston, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Ezra, L. Mishcon, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Molloy, L.
Falkland, V. Monkswell, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Montague of Oxford, L.
Gallacher, L. Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Geraint, L. Morris of Manchester, L.
Gilbert, L. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L. Newby, L.
Glasgow, E. Nicholson of Winterbourne, B.
Glenamara, L. Ogmore, L.
Goodhart, L. Orme, L.
Gordon of Strathblane, L. Parry, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Paul, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Peston, L.
Gregson, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Grenfell, L. Plant of Highfield, L.
Grey, E. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Hamwee, B. Puttnam, L.
Hardie, L. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Hardy of Wath, L. Randall of St. Budeaux, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Redesdale, L.
Haskel, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Renwick of Clifton, L. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Richard, L. [Lord Privy Seal.] Taverne, L.
Rochester, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L. Thomas of Gresford, L.
Russell, E. Thomas of Macclesfield, L.
Sainsbury of Turville, L. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
St. Davids, V. Thurso, V.
Sandberg, L. Tope, L.
Scanlon, L. Tordoff, L.
Scotland of Asthal, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Sefton of Garston, L Varley, L.
Walker of Doncaster, L.
Serota, B. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Sewel, L. Watson of Invergowrie, L.
Shepherd, L. Whaddon, L.
Sheppard of Liverpool, L. Whitty, L.
Shore of Stepney, L. Wigoder, L.
Simon, V. Williams of Crosby, B.
Simon of Highbury, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Smith of Gilmorehill, B. Williams of Mostyn, L.
Stallard, L. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Stone of Blackheath, L. Winston, L.
Strabolgi, L. Young of Old Scone, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I beg to move that the House be now resumed.

Moved accordingly, and on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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